Preparing Thanksgiving dinner is kind of like conducting an orchestra. There are many moving parts that you're responsible for turning into a satisfying meal, and when everything comes together, it is a beautiful thing. Drop your hands for a second, though, and things can quickly turn into a mess. Thankfully, most Thanksgiving trouble spots are predictable. Here are the top five things that could go wrong while you are cooking Thanksgiving dinner, and how to avoid the problems before they even start.
1. The turkey is frozen when you put it in the oven.
We talked turkey with Sue Smith, a registered dietitian and an expert on Butterball's Turkey Talk Line, and she said cooking the bird is by far the biggest cause for concern on Thursday — and prompts the most calls.
Smith, who has answered phone calls on Thanksgiving Day for 16 years, says the No. 1 problem callers ask about is thawing the turkey.
"One time, a mom called and said her husband was defrosting a turkey in the bathtub with her kids," she said. "I've heard of people putting it in the dishwasher, wrapping an electric blanket around it."
If you're buying a frozen turkey, Smith said to think of the Thursday before Thanksgiving as National Thaw Your Turkey Day. That means if your turkey is currently still in the freezer, get it into the fridge immediately. Turkeys that are 8 to 12 pounds need about 3 days to thaw completely, 12- to 16-pounders need about 4 days, and anything more than 16 pounds needs about 5 days in the fridge.
The fridge is the best and safest place to thaw a turkey; keep your bird in the packaging and place it on a baking sheet on the bottom shelf. If you absolutely need the fridge space, a turkey will thaw in a cold water bath. (Allow one hour for every 2 pounds.) A large sink or even a cooler will work for this option. Just seal the turkey in a plastic bag before submerging, and change the cold water often to make sure it remains under 50 degrees.
2. The turkey overcooks and dries out — or doesn't cook fast enough.
An instant-read thermometer is the best way to tell if a turkey is truly cooked properly.
"Your thermometer is your best friend," Smith said, adding that the thermometer should read 180 degrees in the thigh meat, 170 in the breast and, if stuffed, 165 in the center.
Smith said avoid basting to ensure the turkey doesn't undercook, or take longer than anticipated.
"My husband was shocked the first time I didn't open the oven every 30 minutes to baste the turkey," she said. "It's like putting water on a raincoat — it slides off the turkey, and it prolongs cooking time because you're opening the oven." (If you must baste, make sure you're opening the oven no more than every 30 minutes.)
To keep a turkey from becoming too cooked, it helps to tent it. Two-thirds of the way through the cooking process, place a large piece of aluminum foil over the turkey. This prevents the breast from drying out.
For a crispy skin, crank up the oven to 400 or 425 degrees during the last half-hour of cooking.
Smith also suggested elevating the turkey above the roasting pan. She doesn't have a flat rack that fits inside her pan, so she usually works foil into a coil and places that under her turkey to give it some height. She also recommended placing a layer of whole carrots or other sturdy vegetables under the turkey, or using a muffin pan that has been flipped over.
3. Not enough oven space!
Before Thursday, come up with a plan that details when everything will get cooked and where exactly in the oven it will go. If you find yourself having to cook eight side dishes in the oven at the same time, you are going to need a different plan.
Come up with a couple of sides you don't need to put in the oven, like these:
• A green bean side can be made entirely on the stovetop.
• Try a cold cranberry relish instead of a cooked sauce. To make, pulse 12 ounces of fresh cranberries in a food processor until coarsely chopped, then mix with orange zest and diced orange segments from two oranges. Add ¼ cup sugar, ¼ cup minced red onion, 2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint and ½ tablespoon minced peeled ginger. Stir well, and let sit at room temperature for a couple of hours.
• For something different, make a cold zucchini salad, using olive oil to tenderize the raw vegetable. Mix ½ pound thickly sliced zucchini rounds with ⅓ cup olive oil, 3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice and 2 tablespoons red pepper flakes. Let sit for 45 minutes before eating. Then stir in 2 ounces grated Parmesan and season with salt and pepper.
Smith said she typically has guests bring a premade dish, something they like, which also lightens the load on your oven.
4. Everyone is too full — or very hungry — by the time you sit down to eat.
This is a perpetual Thanksgiving Day problem in my house — figuring out what to eat on Thursday aside from the big meal. Big breakfast, or no breakfast? To snack or not? Depending on when you and your family eat, some relatives may insist on a meal before the turkey is carved.
Here is where you need to be strategic. If you're eating at or after 3 p.m., definitely plan on having at least one other meal. Make it a hearty brunch, something with protein that won't bloat everyone for the next 4 hours, like eggs. If you're eating before 3 p.m., consider having a light breakfast then preparing some simple platters for everyone to snack on. Try a simple cheese board, with some cubed cheddar and Swiss, pretzels or crackers for crunching, and a couple of handfuls of mixed nuts. And help everyone get their vegetable helping for the day with a platter of fresh raw sliced bell peppers, carrots, radishes, cauliflower — whatever you can find in the grocery store that's pretty and seasonal. After slicing, sprinkle some salt over the veggies and drizzle with some olive oil; dip optional.
5. Everything is cold by the time it gets to the table.
Just like making sure your oven doesn't get overcrowded, getting everything to the table before it is ice cold requires some strategy.
Keep these tips in mind:
• Opt for dishes that do not need a lot of last-minute tinkering. So, if you plan on mashing potatoes just before everyone sits down to eat, don't choose a bunch of other sides that also need attention at the very end of the cooking process. You won't be able to get to them all before something gets cold.
• As with the crowded oven issue, consider a handful of menu items that don't require cooking and are meant to be served cold or at room temperature.
• Here is a trick for keeping fresh rolls hot that could also come in handy for some veggie side dishes. Fill a cloth sack (or kitchen towel or pillowcase) about ¾ full with uncooked rice, and microwave until it's warm to the touch, about 2 to 3 minutes. Do this right before serving the food. If you're keeping rolls warm, just place the rice-filled sack under cloth napkins in a serving bowl and place the rolls on top.
• The most important trick may be this: Don't get offended when someone gets up to microwave their plate for a minute.
Smith also advised getting the whole family involved in the proceedings by making it a family event. Assign tasks ahead of time, like setting the table and washing some dishes as you go, so all that's left to do is serve up some hot food.